The Fundamental Irrationality of Getting Mad

Rarely has angry behavior been deemed intelligent behavior. How could it be when getting mad literally impairs your intellectual functioning? As researchers have repeatedly emphasized, anger makes you see the world in simplistic, absolutist terms. Everything looks either black or white–as in “I’m good and you’re bad,” or “I’m completely right and you’re totally wrong.” Needless to say, such an extreme, anger-fueled interpersonal stance hardly reflects the complex nature of morality or human relationships. Nor does it facilitate any sort of collaborative problem-solving.

To me, it’s hardly a coincidence that the term mad isn’t employed solely as a colloquialism for “angry,” but also used to informally describe someone who’s psychotic. In addition, both the words and actions of such a “crazy” person–that is, one whose thought processes deviate significantly from any reasonable standard–merit being viewed (again, in the vernacular) as stupid, or just plain “dumb.” They’re foolish, heedless, ill-considered. Despite one’s actual, non-angry intelligence, behaviors performed in this impassioned emotional state can be rash and imprudent. As Robert Ingersoll put it: “Anger is the wind that blows out the lamp of the mind.” Or,as Laurence J. Peter opined, “Speak when you are angry–and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”

To take this one step further, when you’re out-of-control, Incredible Hulk-like mad, you’re at risk for hitting, kicking, screaming, swearing, and throwing things. And all these behaviors, though they may seem to release your anger, actually exacerbate it. Rather than extinguish your anger response, they strengthen it. After all, why would you expect to eradicate a response through practicing it?

So strenuous venting of anger is as irrational as it is reckless. And not only does a “public show” of anger not resolve it, it’s also likely to make a bad situation worse. It’s as though in completely losing your cool, you’ve also lost your mind–one reason that the overblown behavior of raging individuals appears so reckless, and at times even paranoid (as in “Why does everyone always do this to me?!!“).

When, for instance, you honk frantically at someone who’s cut you off, you’re taking their trespassing on your boundaries more personally than is typically justified. You’re much too inflamed to consider the possibility that the other driver might not have meant to “violate” your space at all. . . . Or that he might be some sort of homicidal maniac, just waiting for an excuse to plow into you. Consider the words of John F. Boyes: “Violence in the voice is often only the death rattle of reason in the throat.”

And if just being out on the highway brings out your angry/aggressive impulses, you’re also likely to do something stupid and potentially dangerous–such as speeding, tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic, passing on the right, making improper lane changes, running lights and stop signs, and (ahem) performing obscene gestures with your fingers and hands. Anger-inspired driving can, frankly, make you look as though you’ve taken leave of your senses. And it’s just one of many examples of how your actions when mad can induce others to question your sanity. It’s worth noting that such ill-advised driving, now commonly referred to as “road rage,” has also been dubbed “mad driver’s disease.”

When you vigorously–and misguidedly–let out your anger with others (rather than more calmly communicate your frustrations), your unconscious motive is to defeat them, triumph over them, bury them. For you assume that they, not yourself, have caused your anger. But the fact is that no one has the power to make you mad independent of your own negatively biased appraisal of their intentions.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, when provoked you’re impelled to make the other person feel inadequate, bad, wrong, or stupid. And such an aim is itself “dumb,” in that verbally attacking another is least likely to prompt them to change in the direction you desire. It’s irrational to the point of being just plain “nuts” to think that by critically assaulting another you’ll make them more sensitive to your thoughts and feelings, your wants and needs. Still, when you’ve lost your temper, that’s exactly what you’re thinking–if, that is, you’re thinking at all. In the moment unable to appreciate that your wrath is probably only hurting, intimidating, antagonizing, or alienating the other person, you somehow imagine that your unrestrainedly “mouthing off” at them will somehow prompt them to be more sympathetic, more responsive, to your grievances.

And yes, if in fact they do defer to you, you may immediately get what you want. But it’s also probable that you’ve damaged the relationship, leading the other person–emotionally wounded or offended–to feel resentful, or even vengeful toward you. Generally, when people feel demeaned, threatened, or attacked, they don’t look upon their adversary very warmly. They may give into your demands because they feel pressured to accommodate you, but you can be sure they greatly dislike the position they’ve been put in–and (for that matter) you yourself.

The essential impulse behind almost all anger is to hurt the other person (because, reactively, you’ve interpreted their behavior as contrived to hurt you). But even though your attacking them may not be physical but rather mental and emotional, the question remains as to how in the world your adamantly criticizing them could rectify your problems with them? Again, it’s really quite crazy to believe that hurting or affronting another is the best way to get what you want from them. Yet millions (billions?!) of people worldwide endeavor to get others to be more responsive to them through verbal bullying or abuse. Any rational, “sane” person would probably recognize that railing against someone who’s disappointed you is unlikely to yield the results you want.

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© Copyright 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.
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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant to both corporations and publishers. The author of The Vision of Melville and Conrad, he has also written numerous articles in the fields of literature and psychology. He is probably best known for his professional guide book Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, which describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventions. These powerful techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful. An active blogger for Psychology Today, as of 1/1/15 his more than 250 posts--on a broad variety of psychological topics--have received over 8 million views.